The factors that keep stop some Americans from moving even when they have opportunities elsewhere

Richard Florida summarizes survey data that looks at why Americans are resistant to moving:

The survey identifies respondents’ most recent move, their probability of moving in the next two years, and other data related to moving including job opportunities and income prospects, housing costs, the distance from current home, costs of moving to various locations, crime rates, taxes, community values and norms, and proximity to family and friends. The researchers use these data to estimate the overall costs—what they call the “willingness to pay” or WTP—for people to move different locations. They then use statistical models to examine the importance of these psychological factors compared to other mostly financial explanations.

A significant reason for the decline in mobility is that many of us are highly attached to our towns. Nearly half of those in the survey (47 percent) identify as rooted. The rooted are disproportionately white, older, married, homeowners, and rural. Their reasons for not moving are more psychological than economic: proximity to family and friends, and their involvement in the local community or church.

Another 15 percent identify as stuck, lacking the resources or ability to move. The stuck have less formal education, are in worse health, and are less satisfied with their jobs, the survey finds. In addition, they are more likely to live in cities and live relatively close to family members. Their reasons for not moving are mainly economic: the costs of moving, the affordability of housing in other locations, the difficulty of qualifying for a new mortgage, and the perception that there is less opportunity for them elsewhere…

It turns out that the personal costs of moving—and leaving family members, loved ones, and friends behind—are quite high. According to the study, the average American perceives not moving as worth a sacrifice of more than 100 percent of income. The psychological cost of leaving family and friends alone equates to 30 percent. As the study reads: “The median person in our sample will forego 30 percent of his or her income in order to stay close to family.”

I’m guessing there is a lot more to explore here with more data collected from a variety of angles.

Why does Florida talk of these factors as primarily psychological factors? The survey results do not sound like Americans are afraid of moving but rather there are broader social and economic forces that both tie them to their current communities and limit their perceived options elsewhere. Together, these sound like sociological conditions.

How does this fit with suggestions that local ties and interactions are fewer in number or weaker in intensity in America today compared to the past? Or, do Americans now have tools that allow them to maintain and stay in certain social networks without a need to move across networks or join new ones?

How can researchers get at a different cultural milieu regarding mobility? Over time, how could Americans shift from fairly mobile to less mobile?

A call to address inequality in cities but are they doing much?

Among the urban trends of 2017, Curbed notes Richard Florida’s admission that promoting the creative class could exacerbate inequalities in cities:

It takes a lot of reflection to contradict an idea that for many, is the centerpiece of your reputation as an author and analyst. In his new book The New Urban CrisisRichard Florida admitted his previous championing of the new creative class—and the idea that tech and design businesses would reinvigorate cities—didn’t anticipate how this rapidly reshaping economy would create urban inequality. A key phrase from the book, “winner-take-all-urbanism” essentially describes the Hunger Games-esque contest over Amazon’s HQ2 and exemplifies the stakes for cities in today’s fast-moving economy. It’s not just a takeaway, but a call-to-arms for local leaders looking to combat the growing divide between the wealthy and poverty.

It may be a “call-to-arms” but it is interesting that this is not followed up with descriptions of actual cities successfully combating inequality. Cities, on the whole, tend to privilege development projects from those with money who want to make more money. (This is not limited just to city leaders; media outlets often act as boosters and business leaders certainly trumpet more opportunities to make money.) In contrast, projects or problems that need addressing that would help more average residents – affordable housing would be a great example – do not get as much attention.

Perhaps I am just overly pessimistic on this so I would love to hear of a major American city that is clearly addressing inequality rather than promoting growth machines.

Geographic differences in venture capital, start ups

The race between cities to attract the tech industry is an uneven one as two graphics from a Wired story about a Denver startup illustrate:

*Combines San Francisco and San Jose metro areas. Sources: Apartment List, Brookings Institution, Pitchbook

Are efforts to replicate Silicon Valley in different places that much different than trying to copy the High Line? While it is popular to try to attract the tech industry and similar businesses – see Richard Florida’s work as an example – it is not an easy task. Even technology, with all its possibilities to span times and space, is often an embodied industry. Why would Apple pay so much attention to their new building? Why does the tech industry seem to develop in clusters like Silicon Valley and Route 128 outside of Boston?

More broadly, it takes times for communities to develop and often a series of decisions and events are required. Intentional efforts may or may not lead to a flourishing tech sector in a particular location as it is difficult to apply and carry out a particular formula. These developments are often contingent on a number of previous factors. For example, the tech industry seemed to rise up near research universities (Stanford in the Bay Area, multiple schools in the Boston area). It takes a lot (in both time and resources) to develop such educational settings. Success in developing a tech cluster should be measured in decades rather than years.

 

The new suburban crisis is…

According to Richard Florida, the era of cheap growth is over and suburbs will struggle to address important issues:

Suburban sprawl is extremely costly to the economy broadly. Infrastructure and vital services such as water and energy can be 2.5 times more expensive to deliver in the suburbs than in compact urban centers. In total, sprawl costs the U.S. economy roughly $600 billion a year in direct costs related to inefficient land usage and car dependency, and another $400 billion in indirect costs from traffic congestion, pollution, and the like, according to a 2015 study from the London School of Economics. The total bill: a whopping $1 trillion a year…

When all is said and done, the suburban crisis reflects the end of a long era of cheap growth. Building roads and infrastructure and constructing houses on virgin land was and is an incredibly inexpensive way to provide an American Dream to the masses, certainly when compared to what it costs to build new subway lines, tunnels, and high-rise buildings in mature cities. For much of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and on into the 1980s and 1990s, suburbanization was the near-perfect complement to America’s industrial economy. More than the great mobilization effort of World War II or any of the Keynesian stimulus policies that were applied during the 1930s, it was suburban development that propelled the golden era of economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s. As working- and middle-class families settled into suburban houses, their purchases of washers, dryers, television sets, living-room sofas, and automobiles stimulated the manufacturing sector that employed so many of them, creating more jobs and still more homebuyers. Sprawl was driver of the now-fading era of cheap economic growth.

But today, clustering, not dispersal, powers innovation and economic growth. Many people still like living in suburbs, of course, but suburban growth has fallen out of sync with the demands of the urbanized knowledge economy. Too much of our precious national productive capacity and wealth is being squandered on building and maintaining suburban homes with three-car garages, and on the infrastructure that supports them, rather than being invested in the knowledge, technology, and density that are required for sustainable growth. The suburbs aren’t going away, but they are no longer the apotheosis of the American Dream and the engine of economic growth.

Florida is right on a number of counts: (1) many suburbs are long past their period of growth and now having aging infrastructure as well as changing populations; (2) sprawl can be very inefficient for providing basic services (from water to roads to social services); and (3) we are in a different economic era.

At the same time, it is not necessarily clear where the suburbs will go after this. At least a few outcomes are possible:

  1. A decline in interest in suburbs (either a plateauing in population or even decreasing) due to inefficiencies, costs to the environment, and a resurgent interest in urban life (particularly among younger adults). Suburban critics have predicted movement in this direction for several decades.
  2. A retooling of suburbia. This could include: older suburbs adapting to the lack of greenfield growth opportunities; an increase in retrofitting older suburban developments and making them new and exciting; and denser suburban development (from row houses to New Urbanism).
  3. The status quo: enough Americans continue to express a desire for the suburban life despite what critics say. Technology may even help as driverless cars could make commutes more bearable.

There are indeed real issues facing suburbs, the suburban life was never as idyllic as it was portrayed, and suburban communities and outcomes today are varied. But, I believe it is hard to bet against an ongoing interest among Americans for the suburbs.

American geographic mobility still limited

Richard Florida highlights how the percent of Americans moving each year has slowed, particularly compared to the postwar era:

Just slightly more than one in ten Americans (11.2 percent) moved between 2015 and 2016, almost half the 20.2 percent rate back in 1948, when the Census began tracking American mobility. Mobility was once the cornerstone of the American Dream, but today Americans move less often than Canadians, and only a bit more than Finns or Danes.

Both longer and shorter moves have declined over this period. Just 6.9 percent of Americans made shorter moves within the same county, down from 13.6 percent in 1948. The mobility rate for these types of moves plummeted between 1998 and 2008 (with the economic crisis) as the chart below shows, and has declined more slowly ever since.

(David Ihrke/U.S. Census)

Longer moves between counties declined from 6.4 percent in 1948 to just 3.9 percent today over the same period.

(David Ihrke/U.S. Census)

Florida goes on to provide several possible reasons for this more limited mobility. But, two quick issues come to mind:

  1. The historical comparison is both useful and might be a red herring. On one hand, we can consider trends over six decades and this provides helpful context. Too many current news stories talk about trends based on one year changes in data. On the other hand, the immediate decades after World War Two may have been extremely different with general prosperity in America and growing suburbanization. Should we expect the same levels of mobility today or was the postwar era unique?
  2. Is there an ideal level of mobility? I know Florida is in favor of mobility because it means workers can flock to places with jobs and cities that have certain features will attract motivated and talented residents. Clearly, no mobility would create issues as there could be significant mismatches between jobs and employees. But, instead of making comparisons to a few other countries, what would be a healthy level of mobility in the United States?

All that said, a less mobile United States is a different United States.

GE moved to Boston to be near big ideas, disruption, competition

Big companies moving back to big cities is a trendy thing and here the CEO of General Electric describes their recent move back to Boston:

Immelt: You know, we wanted to get to a city. At the end of the day, I think for the company we wanted to get into a place where there was more of an every day where you could get up and be part of an academic setting. So I think it was important to get to a city...

I have to say it’s real. I thought it was a little bit of B.S. initially, I wasn’t sure. And when I looked out the window—when I was in Connecticut, it was beautiful, awesome, great office—but when I looked out my window, I saw nothing, there was nothing going on. I could watch cars go on the highway, things like that.

I’ve been Boston now six weeks and you just walk out the door. You’re in the middle of an ecosystem that quite honestly for a big company, it makes you afraid. You’re where the ideas are. You get more paranoid when you’re doing that and that’s a good thing. So I thought it was—

Isaacson: Only the paranoid survive!?

Immelt: No, no. It’s a good thing. When you’re a big company, it can get hidden but it’s important that you’re in touch with what the next idea is or what the next disruption is. And so I’m kind of a big believer that that’s the wave of the future.

The summary suggests this echoes Richard Florida’s approach to cities. Yet, when people talk about Florida, they often refer to his ideas about employees and the workforce: a talented, diverse, and tolerant workforce that is attracted to thriving cultural and entertainment scenes. Immelt is suggesting something else is also important: competition between ideas. In the suburbs, it is easy to become comfortable and become insulated from cutting edge thinking (and technologies?).

It seems like it wouldn’t be too hard to test this idea: cities produce more innovation and competition than suburban areas. Off the top of my head, it seems like Bell Labs did okay for decades in largely suburban office and R&D facilities. Are the various companies in Silicon Valley hampered by being in more suburban settings (or to put it another way, could they have been even more successful)? Is being in the metropolitan area enough to help spur innovation or does a physical location in an urban core (even opposed to being within city limits but not near thriving areas) near other firms and employees doing these things matter?

Richard Florida: we lack systematic data to compare cities

As he considers Jane Jacobs’ impact, Richard Florida suggests we need more data about cities:

MCP: Some of the research around the built environment is pretty skimpy and not very scientific, in a lot of cases.

RF: Right. And it’s done by architects who are terrific, but are basically looking at it from the building level. We need a whole research agenda. A century or so ago John Hopkins University invented the teaching hospital, modern medicine. They said, medicine could be advanced by underpinning the way doctors treat people and develop clinical methodologies, with a solid, scientific research base. Think of it as a system that runs from laboratory to bed-side. We don’t have that for cities and urbanism.  But at the same time we know that the city is the key economic and social unit of our time. Billions of people across the world are pouring into cities and we are spending trillions upon trillions of dollars building new cities and rebuilding, expanding and upgrading existing ones. We’re doing it with little in the way of systematic research. We lack even the most basic data we need to compare and assess cities around the world. There’s no comparable grand challenge that we have so terribly under funded as cities and urbanism. We need to develop everything from the underlying science to better understand cities and their evolution, the systematic data to assess them and the educational and clinical protocols for building better, more prosperous and inclusive cities. Right now, mayors are out there winging it. Economic developers are out there winging it. There’s no clinical training program. There are some, actually, but they’re scattered about and they’re not having much impact. It’s going to take a big commitment. But we need to build the equivalent of the medical research infrastructure, with the equivalent of “teaching hospitals” for our cities.  When you think of it cities are our greatest laboratories for advancing our understanding the intersection of natural, physical, social and human environments—they’re our most complex organisms. This is going to be my next big research project: I’m calling it the Urban Genome Project. It’s what I hope to devote the rest of my career doing.

The cities as laboratories language echoes that of the Chicago School. But, much of the sociological literature suggests a basic tension in this area: how much are cities alike compared to how much are they different? Are there common processes across most or all cities that we can highlight and work with or does their unique contexts limit how much generalizing can be done? Hence, we have a range of studies with everything from examining large sets of cities at once or processes across all cities (like Florida would argue in The Rise of the Creative Class) versus studies of particular neighborhoods and cities to discover their idiosyncratic patterns.

Of course, we could just look at cities like a physicist might and argue there are power laws underlying cities…